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  • The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala
  • Tamara Chaplin
The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. By Faramerz Dabhoiwala (New York Oxford University Press 2012) 496 pp. $34.95 cloth £10.99 paper

In 1612, Susan Perry and Robert Watson of Westminster, England, were arrested, imprisoned, stripped, tied to a cart, flogged, unceremoniously dumped at the edge of town, and banished for life. Their crime? Sex out of wedlock and the conception of a bastard child. Such punishments were routine in the premodern world. [End Page 259]

Modern attitudes toward sexual freedom and privacy were born in the Age of Enlightenment. This, in a nutshell, is the central claim of Dabhoiwala’s bold, expansive new history of what he calls “The First Sexual Revolution.” Today, Dabhiowala argues, we take sexual freedom for granted. Yet, until recently (the eighteenth century, to be precise), the forms of sexual oppression that we in the West often now associate with religious fundamentalism—from the mistreatment of women to the execution of adulterers and the punishment of homosexuals—were commonplaces of our own society. The Origins of Sex seeks to explain this dramatic transformation.

Dabhoiwala begins by establishing the parameters of a medieval culture of discipline in which ideals of sexual, social, and religious conformity were readily—if not entirely—enforced. Familial and neighborly intimacy in rural towns and villages facilitated community policing. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, rapid urbanization meant that such local surveillance was no longer effective. London, for example (the largest city in the world by 1800 and the unabashed focus of Dabhoiwala’s attentions), offered unprecedented opportunities for sexual pleasure. Religious pluralism, a growing faith in individual reason, new notions of the natural, and the re-evaluation of pleasure as a “positive good” all enhanced the primacy of the private sphere and legitimized the value of personal conscience in matters of sexual morality.

Dabhoiwala is quick to note that the new sexual liberty did not affect all members of society equally. Unsurprisingly, white, heterosexual, propertied males—now understood as rapaciously lustful—benefited most. Upper- and middle-class women, previously presumed (as were all females) to be more vulnerable to the passions, were reconceived as chaste and asexual—an image from which they later derived authority within the women’s movement. Heterosexuality reigned, since emphasis on the “natural” led to a new abhorrence for behaviors couched “unnatural.”

Nonetheless, the notion that sex was a private matter between consenting adults also provided justification for more controversial claims. It was used to defend homosexuality (by no less than Jeremy Bentham), free love (by Mary Wollstonecraft and others), and even polygamy. Prostitutes, once viewed as wicked lusty wenches, were re-imagined as the hapless victims of male seduction. Indeed, the theme of the female innocent besieged by the male libertine became a key motif in English novels of the time (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the History of a Young Lady [London, 1748] comes to mind). Meanwhile, the burgeoning mass media and explosion in print culture gave rise, via coverage of courtesans like Kitty Fisher, to the modern concept of sexual celebrity.

The book is unrepentantly Anglophile, making broad generalizations about the sexual revolution in the West on the basis of an encyclopedic range of almost exclusively British sources. One wonders what a more postcolonial, transnational and global perspective—in which the flows of influence, culture, and information between metropole, [End Page 260] Europe, America, the British colonies, and the world beyond were understood as more multidirectional, messy, and contested—might add to this account.

That said, as an ambitious synthetic work that draws on history, literature, poetry, philosophy, political theory, and religion as well as legal texts, broadsheets, paintings, prints, and material culture, and which is written in a lively style punctuated throughout with juicy vignettes, The Origins of Sex makes for responsible—and racy—reading.

Tamara Chaplin
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


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pp. 259-261
Launched on MUSE
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